4th of July Roundup

–Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Harry Mount explains how the recruitment of spies has evolved beyond the “tap on the shoulder” formerly applied. After explaining how he tried and failed to get the tap, he mentions another example

For decades after the war, the security services kept on interviewing and hiring some of the worst possible people for the job. When he was rusticated from Oxford for failing his exams, the late journalist Auberon Waugh was told by his father, Evelyn: “There are only two possible careers for a man who has been sent down from Oxford. You must become either a schoolmaster or a spy.”

Auberon, or Bron, duly wrote to Sir Roger Hollis, an old drinking friend of Evelyn’s, who was head of MI5 at the time. Shortly afterwards, he was sent to the Civil Service Selection Board – the same body that rejected me 35 years later. Bron failed, too, and he also reapplied three years later. He got an interview even though his friend Martin Dunne had given him the worst reference possible, dwelling at length on Bron’s “irresponsibility and carelessness”.

Bron finally ended his prospective espionage career in his interview, when he said how much he admired the new independent countries in Africa. “You don’t think they may have some problems?” asked one of the interviewers.

“I feel sure they will overcome them,” he said. “You see, they may not be as good as us at our particular skills, but they are much better than us at other things.”

“What sort of things?” Bron’s mind went blank. “Well, climbing trees,” Bron suggested weakly. Soon after, he was looking for posts in the teaching profession.

When I interviewed him in 1991, Bron said: “There’s no sense in waiting for a tap on the shoulder. Perhaps you should expose your shoulder. I went round tapping shoulders, but didn’t make it. It can be very boring; stuck behind a desk. Even if you make it, with your cover you won’t appear successful to the outside world, being a very humble First Secretary to an embassy at best.”

Country Life has an article that discusses the origin of names for creatures that often have several versions. One involves a well-known passage in a Waugh novel:

On a rainy night in early March of 1928, after hours of debate about soldiers’ pensions, the Protection of Lapwings Bill was read out in the House of Commons. The legislation had been proposed in the hope of bringing an end to people setting out in spring to pick the iridescent waders’ eggs.[…]

Those of you who know your Evelyn Waugh will be aware that, in a now-illegal culinary context, lapwing eggs have another name. After Sebastian Flyte vomits through Charles Ryder’s window in Brideshead Revisited, Flyte invites him to a lunch where the guests are dining on ‘plovers’ eggs’. It all ends with the flamboyant aesthete Anthony Blanche shouting verses from T. S. Eliot’s Modernist epic The Waste Land across the quad. Oxford, I’m told, is different these days.

Plover is an old name for the lapwing and I like to think that Blanche would have known it derives from pluvia, the Latin for rain, because the birds are seen flocking in autumn as the weather starts to turn.

–Waugh’s reference to Eliot’s poem also receives some attention in the website InterestingLiterature.com.   An article by Oliver Tearle is posted about the history and derivation of the phrase: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” After a discussion of how the phrase evolved through various texts, the article concludes:

In short, then, the ‘fear in a handful of dust’ which the godlike figure promises to show the ‘Son of man’ is, we might say, both human mortality and the pointless death-in-life that people without spiritual meaning in their lives have to endure. Neither is viable: however you view this ‘handful of dust’, it must be rejected in favour of that shadow or protection which stretches far beyond one man and his narrow lifespan. The Waste Land is a poem about modern life stripped of deeper spiritual meaning. The ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’, in referring to both human mortality and the fate of the Sibyl, shows the horror of both, offering something ‘beyond ourselves’ as the solution or cure to this fear.

The phrase ‘a handful of dust’, from Eliot’s poem, was used by Evelyn Waugh for the title of his 1934 novel.

–In another Daily Telegraph article, Harry Hudson considers the implications of the recent announcement that annual scholastic sports days may now be resumed as the Covid epidemic winds down. Not everyone would agree that will be a good thing:

For those in whom the thought of sports day only evokes melancholia, the recent government announcement giving sports days the green light after last year’s blanket cancellation will not have come as good news. Memories of stumbling round the second lap of the 800 metres or dropping the baton in front of baying crowds will have come rushing back with unpleasant clarity to some, while others will have thought only of Evelyn Waugh’s farcical send up of this most British of annual institutions in Decline and Fall and reckon he got it about right.

It is not often, however, that participants in these events nowadays will end up with a fatal shot from a starter’s pistol.

–Finally, the weblog Chateau Lloyd has posted a follow up article in which it compares works of Evelyn Waugh to those of Ford Maddox Ford. This is by A H Lloyd whose original comparison related Waugh’s Sword of Honour to Maddox Ford’s Parades End. See previous post. Since both were multiple novels on the subject of war as seen by a participant, a comparison was fairly obvious. This followup relates Brideshead Revisited to The Good Soldier for which the subject matter of the novels was on the surface quite different. After comparing in some detail the two authors’ treatment of their narrators, the stories and structure and the treatment of religious faith, the essay concludes:

As an admirer of both, I unquestionably enjoy Brideshead Revisited more.  Repeated readings bring renewed appreciation for Waugh’s talent.  The Good Soldier doesn’t have the same effect, and while one can go back and admire Ford’s craftsmanship, the story itself is just unpleasant to read. Still, as I said in my other piece, Ford’s writing was known and available, and if his tale of the idle rich is inferior to that of Waugh, it is still an important milestone in literary development.  Both books are well worth your time.



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